The problem with Q&A’s…
Ok here’s the script. Over on the Twenty-first floor is where you will likely find most of my “science writing” and a fair whack of my skeptical stuff as well. Which leaves… well it leaves the more controversial/political and ranty topics for the microscope.
Today perhaps unfairly I want to have a wee rant about science communication and the Q&A. Presumably it’s intended as a means for an audience to seek clarification on points the speaker has just mentioned or to seek further information about topics raised.
I doubt somehow that anyone has told the general public this as there appear to be a few common types of questioner present at such events:
The Pet theorist: No not someone with a novel view about Positron emission tomography but someone with a little (or perhaps a lot – but nearly always less than the academic) knowledge of a few concepts or ideas in an area or field who wants to ask a question about their own pet theory for why shit happens or why shit is shit. This type of question can be cringeworthy as the academic deals with it politely whilst you get the impression they are wondering why the fuck they are bothering.
Creationists and their ilk form a sub-category of the pet theorist who bypass the bit about knowledge of concepts and ideas and jump straight to nonsensical pet theories like intelligent design.
The missed the point completely: The most excuciating to listen to and probably the most demoralising to answer. Someone who either hasn’t listended or utterly failed to understand the point of the talk (I usually avoid asking questions just in case I am one of these people!). When someone asks a question like this I often wonder if the academic attributes this to their ignorance or some failing in their presentation. Whichever way it is vexing for the audience members who were listening and understood to hear the speaker go over the same ground again… I mean – JUST. FUCKING. LISTEN. If you don’t understand then perhaps that’s fair enough – though if you are asking the SAME FUCKING QUESTION as someone else but in a different way… YOU ARE A FUCKING IDIOT. Cheers.
The “I’m going to ask a scientist a question”: The type of person who doesn’t understand how highly specialised science is these days and that one type of scientists won’t likely be able to answer a question on another area. I think perhaps most lay people probably fall into this category to an extent – so it’s perhaps unfair to pick on folk who make this schoolboy error. Especially when the confusion arises from asking a human cellular biologists questions about plant cellular biology or an experimental physicist about string theory or the like. But there is an element of “this hasn’t really got anything to do with what you said but I’ll ask it anyway” to it: should a guitarist expect to field questions about drumming? I think people perhaps have this ridiculous notion that science is some monolithic endeavour rather than a complex mish-mash of interwoven and in some cases interlocked fields that share a common method!
Anyway I just wanted to have a wee rant about the inane and utterly banal questions people seem to ask scientists – admitadly I couldn’t think of anything interesting to ask but as a wooster recently commented on a blog of mine “It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than it is to open it and remove all doubt”